Yesterday I finished weeding the beans.beans 1

It seemed like such a small thing, in the July jungle of my garden.  June rains had brought forth a high tide of grass, and then a fortnight of drought toughened up the weeds, which sent their sinewy roots deep.  When you pull them, they make you fight for every inch.

“Never weed unless you mulch!” I tell myself each summer; i.e. when you weed, put straw down on the newly cleared patch immediately afterward so the weeds don’t just come back, like the telemarketer who promises to “catch you at a better time”.  But “never weed unless you mulch” had turned into “never weed at all” somehow, as it so often does.

And so the beans, easiest of all vegetables to plant, easiest of all vegetables to maintain, sat stoic amongst a dense mat of spreading weeds.  Carpetweed and purslane, spurge and chickweed.  The beans were coping, as beans do.  They’re not ones to complain.  Anyone can grow beans, which is one reason I plant them.

Their pointed leaves, average-Joe green, drifted above a choking mass of radial foliage no more than half an inch high.  The sun beat down on my neck.  A weak impostor of a breeze stirred the invasive grasses all around.  It would’ve been easier, I realized belatedly, to do this with the garden tools, which sat forgotten in the barn.  Never mind, thought I, pinching the root hubs savagely with my fingertips.  I can cope too.  A drop of sweat trickled down, silently followed by another.

chervil 1I picked my way from row to row, avoiding the pale bean stalks and attempting to spare the chervil – that poor low-growing sidekick with its minuscule, finely cut leaves, all but smothered by the annual predators.  Chervil –  delicate in taste, lacy in habit, thin-stalked and self-effacing – is the canary in the coal mine of my garden.  When the garden’s well looked after, chervil thrives.  This chervil was all but extinct.

I laid the last handful of straw in place, straightened up, and looked around.  Seventeen beds of neglect stared back.  I looked back at the bean bed, a small act of restoration in a wide world of chaos.  I focused, hard, on the pattern of pale straw and bright leaves.  “Whenever skies look grey to me…and trouble begins to brew….I concentrate on you.” I sang it to myself, and only in my mind.

Sometimes it feels like I can only grow one kind of garden: a garden of intentions, with a harvest of reproach.  But the beans at least have no argument with me. For a scorching hour in a month of drought – drought for gardens, but also drought for freelance food writers – I felt gainfully occupied.  Nobody said my idea was unpublishable.  Nobody struggled through 600 stubbornly mediocre words.  Nobody had to make the best of a pitch gone sour.  Nobody needed to be cajoled into doing, or not doing, anything at all.

I slowly made my way back toward the house, passing beneath the grateful shade of the maple, trying out job titles.  T. Susan Chang, seamstress.  T. Susan Chang, occasional fortune teller.  T. Susan Chang, underemployed pessimist.  T. Susan Chang, friend to beans.

I decided I liked the last one best.

Remember that dreadful day in 2009 when you learned that Gourmet magazine was to be no more?  For many of us, it was a low point in America’s food culture.  Reichl, the queen of second acts, was tweeting and publicizing the last Gourmet cookbook in no time, but privately, she was devastated.  The new book chronicles that trying year and the comfort foods that pulled her through it, and I got to have a look at it for the Globe.

Click here to read my review of ‘My Kitchen Year’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version of ‘My Kitchen Year’ review

Meanwhile, the Washington Post asked me to have a look at two new gluten-free books.  It’s an exploding genre.  There’s books for pretty much any kind of gluten-free fare you can imagine, though for obvious reasons gluten-free baking probably remains the top seller.  One was wildly popular blogger Shauna Ahern’s re-imagining of thickened, battered, crusty treats usually off limits to the gluten-intolerant.

The other came from British columnist Susanna Booth, who writes the “Free From” (don’t snicker, now) column for The Guardian. To tell the truth, I would have truly enjoyed reviewing Jeanne Sauvage’s Gluten-Free Wish List, also released last year, most of all.  But as Jeanne is a friend, it was proscribed.

 Click here to read my review of  ‘Gluten-Free Girl: American Classics Reinvented’ and ‘Gloriously Gluten-Free’ in the Washington Post.

The book:  MAKING DOUGH, by Russell van Kraayenburg (Quirk Books, $24.95)

The recipe:  Butter Croissants (in other words, your plain, perfect, standard croissant)

Why I tried itEvery couple of months I buy a croissant. Unless I’m in a big city with hardcore pastry people, it’s usually just sort of OK. But once a decade or so, I make croissants. And, when I do, I always ask myself two questions. 1) Why did I think this was a good idea? and 2) Why don’t I do this more often? That’s how much of a pain they are before, and that’s how good they are after. But – given the ten year interval – I can never remember which recipe I use. So when Making Dough arrived, and I felt the ten-year itch, I thought I might as well see if Russell van Kraayenburg could take me painlessly through the process.

Why I loved it: In short, he did. I was busy, and it took a couple days. But the diagrams were clear, the beurrage (butter block) and détrempe (dough) proportions worked out, and at no point did I feel I’d gotten in over my head. And the reward for all that measuring, weighing, rolling, resting, trimming, shaping? 15 minutes of transporting, senseless, crumb-strewn butter-bliss. I can’t tell you if those 15 minutes will be worth it to you – that’s a subjective matter. It’s probably a good thing not everyone’s willing to sell their soul for a pound of butter. All I can tell you is that it was worth it, and then some, to me.

Estimated preparation time:  15 or 16 hours, technically, but you might as well make it easy for yourself and call it 2 days. A person has to sleep sometime, and there are plenty of stopping points where the dough, and you, can turn in for some shut-eye.

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Butter croissants

Croissant Dough
Yield: 3 pounds
Time: 8 hours

1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1 1/2 ounces granulated sugar
2 ounces (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
12 ounces bread flour
8 ounces cake flour
2 teaspoons salt

Butter Block
12 ounces (1 1/2 cups) unsalted butter, cold
1/2 ounce bread flour

MIXING THE DOUGH: There are two ways to make croissant dough: kneading with your hands and using a stand mixer. (Note from TSC – I used the stand mixer method, so I can’t vouch for how well the by-hand method works.)

By Hand Method:
1. Heat milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until it reaches the scalding point (180°F on a clipped-on thermometer); it will begin to steam and appear slightly foamy. Remove from heat and let cool to 115°F at room temperature.

2. Warm a large bowl by running hot tap water over the outside. Add warm (105°F –115°F) milk to bowl and stir in yeast for about 2 to 3 minutes, until completely dissolved. Stir in sugar. Slowly pour in melted butter while stirring. Mix until homogeneous. Add flours and salt. Stir until dough begins to form.

3. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and knead for about 2 minutes, until dough holds its shape and is smooth.  Let dough rest in the bowl, covered with a kitchen towel, for 20 minutes.

4. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface, ideally a large marble slab, and shape into a rough rectangle with your hands. With a rolling pin roll dough into a 12-by-16-inch rectangle. Carefully move to a parchment paper–lined baking sheet, cover with a kitchen towel, and let rest for 20 minutes.

Stand Mixer Method
1. Heat milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until it reaches the scalding point (180°F on a clipped-on thermometer); it will begin to steam and appear slightly foamy. Remove from heat and let cool to 115°F at room temperature.

2. Warm the large bowl of an electric stand mixer by running hot tap water over the outside. Add warm (105°F –115°F) milk to bowl and stir in yeast for 2 to 3 minutes, until completely dissolved. Stir in sugar. Slowly pour in melted butter while stirring. Mix until homogenous. Add flours and salt.

3. Knead with the electric mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment on the lowest setting for about 1 to 2 minutes, until dough comes together and begins to form a smooth ball. Let dough rest in the bowl, covered with a kitchen towel, 20 minutes.

4. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface, ideally a large marble slab, and shape into a rough rectangle with your hands. With a rolling pin roll dough into a 12-by-16-inch rectangle. Carefully move to a parchment paper–lined baking sheet, cover with a kitchen towel, and let rest for 20 minutes.

MAKING THE BUTTER BLOCK:
There are two ways to make the butter block: kneading with your hands and using a stand mixer.

By Hand Method
1. Using the heel of your palm, mash butter down and away from you on a hard, cold surface (ideally a chilled marble slab) to soften. Incorporate smashed butter into remaining butter, rotate, and repeat, mashing butter until it is soft and malleable but still cold. Add flour. Knead until well combined.

3. Shape mixture into a 6-inch square with your hands. Place between pieces of parchment paper. Roll into a 12-by-10-inch rectangle with a rolling pin. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes, until firm.

Stand Mixer Method
1. Beat butter in the bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until just softened. Add flour and mix until blended in.

2. With a spatula transfer mixture to a piece of parchment paper. Shape into a 6-inch square with your hands. Place another piece of parchment on top. Roll into a 12-by-10-inch rectangle with a rolling pin. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes, until firm.

MAKING CROISSANTS

1. Remove butter block from the refrigerator. Place dough on a lightly floured work surface with a short end nearest you. Place butter block on the bottom two-thirds of dough (closer to you). Fold the top, butterless third down over the center third. Fold the bottom third of dough and butter up over the rest (as if folding a letter into thirds). Wrap dough tightly in parchment paper or a kitchen towel. Place on a baking sheet and freeze for 25 minutes. If you need to let it rest longer, move it to the refrigerator.

2. Perform a single turn: Unwrap dough and place on a lightly floured surface. Lightly pound dough with a rolling pin, starting from the center and working outward in both directions; start with the rolling pin parallel to the long side and repeat with it parallel to the short side. Flip dough and repeat. Once dough and butter have softened (if you press your finger into the dough, the butter block underneath it should not feel hard or provide much resistance, roll dough into a 12-by-16-inch rectangle, slowly and lightly so that the butter won’t break. Fold dough into thirds like a letter. Wrap tightly and return to the freezer to rest for 25 minutes.

3. Repeat the single turn (step 2) twice more, for a total of 3 single turns. After the last fold, rest in the freezer for 25 minutes. Move to the refrigerator and rest for an additional 35 minutes.

Storage
Croissant dough can be stored at various stages during folding, forming, and proofing. Make sure that it is always covered with a kitchen towel or tightly wrapped in parchment paper when storing.

Before folding: Store the dough alone, before it and the butter block have been folded together.
Refrigerator: 1 day.
After folding: Store after the dough and butter block have been folded 3 times. Refrigerator: 1 day. Freezer: 1 week.

After shaping: Refrigerator: 1 day. Freezer: 1 month.

Croissant diagramClassic Butter Croissants

Yield: 7 croissants
Prep Time: 8 hours
Bake Time: 50 minutes

3 pounds prepared Croissant Dough
1 egg, beaten (egg wash)

1. Shape dough into croissants (see diagram). Place on a baking sheet, evenly spaced so that they aren’t touching, with the pointed ends underneath. Let rise in a proof box or bag, spraying a light mist of water over them with a spray bottle every hour. Let rise for about 4 hours, until doubled in size and very soft. Pressing the dough should make a small indention that will not fill in.

2. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 450°F. Brush croissants with egg wash. (If you prefer your croissants lighter in color, brush with beaten egg whites only, rather than an egg wash made from a whole egg.) Place baking sheet in oven and reduce heat to 425°F. Bake for 10 minutes, rotate the pan, and reduce heat to 375°F. Bake for another 35 to 40 minutes, until croissants have dark brown, glossy crusts, feel very light, and, if turned over, appear dry.

3. Let croissants cool on the baking sheet until they can be handled. Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool completely before serving.

Excerpted from Making Dough: Recipes and Ratios for Perfect Pastries by Russell van Kraayenburg. Reprinted with permission from Quirk Books.

The book:  A Girl & Her Greens, by April Bloomfield with J. J. Goode (Ecco, $34.99)

The recipe:  Dosa with curried cauliflower and yogurt

Why I tried itDosa is one of my million favorite foods, but it’s one of the ones I’ve almost never made.  I usually hunt it down on my visits to New York, in Little India where I used to live. One sight and one taste of that golden, crisp scroll, as long as my arm, is enough to remind me why I love it so much, but also why it so intimidates me.  Could I really make dosa at home?  It seemed almost too good to be possible, but as usual curiosity got the better of me.  And after all, I reasoned, April Bloomfield knows what she’s doing.  She won’t fail me.

Why I loved it: I won’t lie: it’s a little bit of a project. But for the longest part of it the legumes are just sitting there fermenting – you don’t have to actually do anything.  You could cook the curry ahead of time if you wanted and just focus on dosa-making when the time comes.  I was surprised how easy it was to cook dosa.  If you’ve ever made crêpes, it’s not that different, but you only have to cook one side.  You can try spreading the batter around with the base of a measuring cup, as Bloomfield suggests – it didn’t work out so well for me though.  So I just thinned the batter and tilted-and-swirled like I do for crêpes.  The result? crisp, golden dosa, just ready to fill with the curry.  They’re best eaten piping hot out of the pan, which means that the ideal serving size is 1.  But if people are willing to wait their turn, you can turn them out sequentially.

Estimated preparation time:  1 or 2 days for the batter to ferment, 45 minutes for the cauliflower curry, about an hour to make dosa.

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Dosa with curried cauliflower and yogurt
Serves 4 to 6

FOR THE DOSA BATTER
2 cups basmati rice
1 cup white urad dal
1/4 cup chana dal
1 teaspoon Maldon salt

FOR COOKING AND FILLING THE DOSAS
Several teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
Maldon or another flaky sea salt
Curried Cauliflower with Peas (recipe below), warm
Generous 4 cups Greek yogurt
A small handful of delicate cilantro sprigs, roughly chopped

Make the dosa batter: Combine the rice and the two types of dal in a large mixing bowl and add 10 cups of water. Stir well and cover the bowl with cheesecloth or a lid left slightly ajar. Leave the bowl at room temperature (and away from any cool drafts) to ferment until the mixture smells slightly sour and looks a bit frothy, about 24 hours. If you like your dosa a little more sour, which I do, let it ferment for another 12 to 24 hours.

Drain the rice mixture, reserving 4 cups of the liquid. Blend the rice mixture with 3 cups of the reserved liquid until completely smooth,

Gradually add up to another 1 cup of the liquid if necessary to achieve a texture like that of heavy cream. When you’re ready to make the dosa, stir in the salt until it has dissolved.

Cook and fill the dosa: Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until it’s good and hot. Before you cook the first dosa, add about 1/2 teaspoon of oil to the pan and swirl the pan to coat the bottom as best you can. Between dosa, wipe the pan clean.

Stir the batter well before making each dosa. Spoon about 4 cup of the batter into the center of the pan and using an implement with a flat bottom, such as a metal measuring cup, spread the batter into a very thin round about 8 inches in diameter. Start in the center and spread the batter outward using a circular motion. You need a really light touch to get the batter nice and thin without creating any big holes (tiny holes form naturally and that’s a good thing). You’ll get better with each one you make—and you have plenty of batter, so don’t fret if you bungle the first few.
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After spreading the batter, add a very light drizzle of oil and a light sprinkle of salt to the surface of the dosa. Let the dosa cook, without messing with it, until the edges begin to brown and lift from the pan and the underside is a light golden color, 1 to 2 minutes. Use a spatula to gently lift an edge, then transfer the dosa to a plate—it should come away from the pan easily and cleanly. Spoon 1/2 to 3/4 cup of the curried cauliflower to one side of the dosa. Add a dollop of yogurt and a generous pinch of the chopped cilantro. Fold the dosa over the filling to make a semicircle and serve straightaway while you get to work on the remaining dosa.

CURRIED CAULIFLOWER WITH PEAS
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion (about 1/2 pound), halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
3 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 red Thai or another small, very spicy fresh chile, thinly sliced (including seeds)
1 small head cauliflower, trimmed and cut into 2 x 2-inch florets (about 3 cups)
2 generous tablespoons very thinly sliced cilantro stems
2/3 cup drained, trimmed, and finely chopped canned whole tomatoes
1 tablespoon garam masala
1 tablespoon Maldon or another flaky sea salt
10-ounce package frozen baby peas
1 heaping tablespoon Greek yogurt

Heat the oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat until it smokes lightly. Add the onion, stir well, and cook, stirring occasionally, until wilted and just beginning to color, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and chile and cook, stirring, until the onion has browned in spots, 3 to 5 minutes more.

Add the cauliflower and cilantro stems to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, just until the cauliflower has picked up some of the brown color from the onion, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, garam masala, and salt and cook, stirring frequently, until the tomato is thick and jammy, about 5 minutes.

Stir in the peas and 1/2 cup of water, scraping the sides and bottom of the pot to get at that nice browned stuff. Pop a lid on the pot, reduce the heat to maintain a steady simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is fully tender but not mushy and the liquid has thickened a bit, about 20 minutes. (You might have to remove the lid for the last 5 minutes to help the liquid evaporate.) Stir in the yogurt, turn off the heat, and let the curry sit covered for a few minutes so the flavors can meld. Serve straightaway.

The curry keeps for a day or two in the fridge. Add a splash of water and gently warm it before serving.

From A Girl & Her Greens by April Bloomfield with J J. Goode.  Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

The book:  The Food Lab, by J. Kenji López-Alt (W. W. Norton & Co., $49.95)

The recipe:  Crispy potato cake, or rösti

Why I tried itTo tell the truth, it was not the first time I’d made, or eaten, rösti, the Swiss potato dish that’s like a better class of hash browns, or a less decadent latke.  I confess it was the microwave step that made me do it, this time.  I’m as vulnerable as anyway to the Kenji gee-whiz ethos, and if nuking the grated potatoes was going to make me some rösti to kill for, or to die for, then I was in.

Why I loved it:  The reason I, a rösti lover, never made rösti much till this year, is that there are steps – grating, rinsing, squeezing, drying, maybe a stint in the oven.  And it’s something I like to eat in the morning, when I can’t handle steps.  Catch me at 4 pm and sure, I’ll make puff pastry, but at 7 in the morning?  I don’t think so.  Anyway, the Kenji technique takes away practically all the fuss.  You peel and grate the potato, nuke it for 4 or 5 minutes, and then cook it on both sides in a hot oiled skillet.

If you’ve made a small, one-potato rösti, you don’t even need a plate to invert it, you can just flip it with a turner.  Of course, if you’ve made a small, one-potato rösti, don’t bother cleaning up because you’re just going to have to make another as soon as you’ve finished the first.

Estimated preparation time:  25 minutes, maybe 20 if you’ve already had your coffee. 

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FoodLab_page 135Crispy potato cake (aka rösti)
Serves 2 or 3

3 medium russet (baking) potatoes (about 1 pound), rinsed and cut into 1⁄16-inch matchsticks or grated on the large holes of a box grater
¼ cup olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Spread the potatoes on a large microwave-safe plate and microwave on high until hot all the way through and softened but still slightly crunchy, about 5 minutes.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the potatoes and press into the bottom of the pan with a rubber spatula. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, swirling and shaking the pan occasionally, until the potatoes are deep golden brown and crisp on the first side, about 7 minutes. Carefully slide the rösti onto a large plate. Set another plate on top of it, upside down, grip the edges, and invert the whole thing so the rösti is now cooked side up.

3. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in the skillet and slide the rösti back in. Season with salt and pepper. Continue cooking, swirling and shaking the pan occasionally, until the rösti is deep golden brown and crisp on the second side, about 7 minutes longer. Slide onto a cutting board and serve immediately, with aioli or mayonnaise, or ketchup.

Recipe and images from The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. Copyright © 2015 by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

The book:  Brown Eggs & Jam Jars, by Aimée Wimbush-Bourque (Penguin Canada, $32)

The recipe:  Brussels sprouts with honey and hazelnuts

Why I tried itLike everybody else, I became a Brussels sprouts lover when I learned to roast them (and it doesn’t hurt that the tongue-twisting bitterness you remember from your childhood has been bred out of Brussels sprouts of the modern era). I had a moment of doubt when I saw this was sauté-in-a-skillet recipe, not a roast-in-a-pan recipe. But what sealed the deal was the hazelnuts – the honey-glazed hazelnuts. Let’s face it, if you ever want to solicit my allegiance, all you have to do is say the word “glaze.”

Why I loved it:  Although we don’t think about it much, properly cooked Brussels sprouts have an undercurrent of sweetness beneath their virtue, like a crotchety librarian with a heart of gold. The glazed hazelnuts, all crunch and cream, elicit that sweetness into song. And a scattering of grapefruit zest! of all things, brings its wintry brightness and lift to those autumnal flavors. It is not the most forgiving technique, so don’t try and get away with whole Brussels sprouts or too-big pieces.

Estimated preparation time:  Really, no more than a half-hour, even if you’re distracted or tipsy.

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Photos: © Tim and Angela Chin

Brussels sprouts with honey and hazelnuts

There is no steaming or blanching step here, and you can’t just leave them in longer as you would with roasted sprouts, so it’s important to get the size of the sprouts right. If they’re small, halves are fine. But if they’re not, cut them in thirds (for medium sprouts the size of cherry tomatoes) or quarters (for bigger sprouts the size of ping-pong balls) or even sixths if you get behemoth sprouts. Use a decent sized skillet and give them heat and space – you want some browning to occur, not just steaming.

Serves 4
1/4 cup (60 mL) whole raw hazelnuts
4 teaspoons (20 mL) olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons (30 mL) liquid honey
3/4 teaspoon (4 mL) sea salt
1 pound (500 g) Brussels sprouts
1 tablespoon (15 mL) butter
Freshly ground black pepper
1 grapefruit, scrubbed

1. Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).

2. Toast hazelnuts on a baking sheet in the oven for 8 minutes. Pour them into a clean tea towel and wrap them up. Vigorously rub the hazelnuts through the towel to remove the skins. Don’t worry if they don’t all come off.

3. In a small microwaveable bowl, whisk together 1 teaspoon (5 mL) of the olive oil and 1 teaspoon (5 mL) of the honey. Warm for 15 seconds or so in the microwave and stir to combine. Add nuts to the mixture and toss to coat. Sprinkle with a generous pinch of sea salt. Return the nuts to the baking sheet and toast in the oven for another 12 to 15 minutes or until they are light brown. Turn the pan of hot hazelnuts onto a cutting board and let them cool. Coarsely chop.

4. Trim the bottoms of the Brussels sprouts. Peel off the outer leaves and discard. Slice sprouts in half top to bottom.

5. In a large saute pan over medium-high heat, melt butter together with the remaining 3 teaspoons (15 mL) olive oil. Add sprouts and cook, stirring frequently, just until they turn a vibrant green, with browned bits, 6 to 8 minutes.

6. Reduce heat to low and drizzle sprouts with the remaining tablespoon (15 mL) honey. Using a microplane, zest the grapefruit into the pan. Season Brussels sprouts with salt and pepper and stir to combine thoroughly. Transfer to a serving bowl. Sprinkle with honey-roasted hazelnuts and serve hot.

Reprinted from Brown Eggs and Jam Jars: Family Recipes from the Kitchen of Simple Bites (Penguin Canada, $32.00)

The book:  Gloriously Gluten-Free, by Susannah Booth (Hamlyn Books, $29.99)

The recipe:  Coffee & walnut cake

Why I tried itApparently, last year –  I didn’t realize this until I had already made up this year’s Best Recipe list – I also featured a walnut cake.  (It seems walnut cake is yet one more thing I can’t resist.)  I didn’t go hunting for walnut cake when testing a brace of gluten-free books this year, yet there it was.  As soon as I saw this was a coffee-flavored walnut cake, as opposed to a walnut coffee cake, I was lost.  As Superman before Kryptonite, I am powerless before the flavor of coffee, although alas I cannot take much caffeine.

Why I loved it:  This was not a straightforward test. Gloriously Gluten-Free is a buy-in, presumably converted from metric, and something is a bit off about the water measurements for dissolving the confectioner’s sugar. I’ve tried to update the measurements for both buttercream and icing, but do use your judgement. Anyway, despite a bit of hair-pulling and concern about the crumb (with no gluten, it’s a fall-apart interior, which will be divine on the tongue if you can keep it together till serving time), this turned into a tender, coffee-scented, fantastically alluring confection. It was, in fact, my daughter’s favorite dessert of the year. And this is a house where desserts happen with clocklike regularity.  I warn you, it’s not pretty.  But given it is unlikely to survive more than 10 minutes after the first bite, that hardly seems to matter.

Estimated preparation time:  About an hour, as long as you don’t run into issues with the confectioner’s sugar-based components.

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Bruta, ma buona. I decided that adding the decorative walnut halves would only make it look sadder.

Coffee & Walnut Cake
I’m sorry to say that this cake is rather hideously unphotogenic. But I urge you to try it anyway, even if you are the kind of old-school baker who ordinarily shies away from anything labeled “gluten-free”. It may well convert you to the cause, at least in this one instance. I used espresso powder, by the way, not having any instant coffee on hand.

About 10 slices
2 tablespoons sunflower oil, plus extra for greasing
1 1/2 cups walnut pieces, plus walnut halves to decorate
1/2 cup brown rice flour
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons instant coffee
3 teaspoons boiling water
2 teaspoons baking power

Buttercream
1 teaspoon instant coffee
2 teaspoons boiling water
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Icing
1/2 teaspoon instant coffee
2 tablespoons boiling water
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted

Preheat the oven to 340 degrees. Lightly oil a 9 inch loaf pan with sunflower oil.

Place 1 cup of the walnut pieces and the rice flour in a food processor and process until the mixture is the texture of coffee grinds. Add the brown sugar, milk, oil, eggs, and vanilla extract. Stir together the instant coffee and the measurement of boiling water in a small cup until the coffee dissolves. Pour into the food processor and blend for 1 minute until the mixture is thick and creamy. Let stand for 15 minutes.

Add the baking powder to the cake batter and blend for a couple of seconds. Fold in the remaining walnut pieces, then pour into the prepared loaf pan, smoothing the top with a spatula. Bake for 30 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Let cool in the pan.

To make the buttercream filling, mix together the coffee and the measurement of boiling water in a large bowl, then stir in the confectioners’ sugar. Add the butter and beat until well combined.

Cut the cooled cake in half horizontally using a sharp knife (a bread knife works well). Evenly spread the base with the buttercream, then sandwich together with the top.

To make the icing, mix together the coffee and the measurement of boiling water in a bowl until completely dissolved (or you’ll get dark flecks in your icing.) Stir in the confectioners’ sugar to form a thick mixture. Spread across the top of the cake using a palette knife, then decorate with the walnut halves. Chill for 1 hour before serving.

From Gloriously Gluten Free by Susannah Booth, Hamlyn 2015

The book:  Chinatown Kitchen by Lizzie Mabbott (Mitchell Beazley, $29.99 – here’s my complete review)

The recipe:  Xinjiang lamb skewers

Why I tried itCumin and lamb is nothing new; it’s one of the signature flavor combinations of Xinjiang, near the Kazakh and Mongolian borders.  But I have a weakness for chili bean paste (how many weaknesses have I confessed to in this series?!), and it was summer, which meant grabbing any opportunity whatsoever to light the grill.

Why I loved it:  It’s funny, this turns out to be all about the ma la (“numbing and hot”) , which I think of as more of a Szechuan thing. There’s the sizzle of the lamb fat, and the sweetness of the meat and the savory plumb line of the bean paste…and that addictive numbing buzz from the Szechuan peppercorns.  And then there are those grilled scallions, still a bit pungent, flame-and-charcoal-kissed and sweetly blistered.   You’ll likely find yourself licking the skewers, so take a tip from me and watch out for the pointy end.

Estimated preparation time:  15 minutes prep, several hours to marinate, maybe 45 minutes for preheating and grilling
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Xinjiang Lamb Skewers

This is all about the chili bean paste (doubanjiang) so get a good one, ruddy and thick. Personally, I prefer the ones made from broad beans to the ones made from soy beans.
serves 4

1 lb 7 oz boneless lamb shoulder
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
2-inch piece of fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
4 fat garlic cloves, minced
3 teaspoons ground cumin
pinch of salt
3 tablespoons chili bean paste
4 scallions

Chop the lamb shoulder into cubes and put into a bowl.
Toast the cumin seeds in a dry skillet on medium heat for a couple of minutes until you can smell their aroma, shaking the pan often to stop them from burning. Let cool, then grind in a mortar and pestle, or a spice or coffee grinder if you have one. Do the same with the Sichuan peppercorns.
Add both spices to the lamb along with the ginger, garlic, cumin, and salt and mix well, then add the chili bean paste. Cut the scallions into pieces 1 inch long, add them to the lamb, and mix together. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let marinate in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.

Meanwhile, if you don’t have metal skewers, presoak some wooden ones in water for a good 30 minutes (but even so, beware of them catching fire; metal are better).

Take the lamb out of the fridge a couple of hours before cooking so that it comes up to room temperature. Thread the lamb onto your skewers, alternating with the scallion. Cook on a hot barbecue, or a smoking hot ridged grill pan on the stove, for a few minutes each side so that they are charred and cooked through but not burned. Serve with a cooling salad.

From Chinatown Kitchen by Lizzie Mabbott (Mitchell Beazley, 2015)

Welcome, NPR listeners, chowhounds and recipe hunters Whether you’re here because you’ve just run across the “Best Cookbooks of 2015” feature at NPR.org or because you heard there’s a “Best Recipes of 2015” countdown going on, you’ve come to the right place.

Just want the list?  OK!  NPR’s Top 11 Cookbooks of 2015 (in no particular order)

Every year brings a plethora of fascinating new titles that are equally notable in one way or another.  Although I can’t, of course,  fully test and feature every one, what follows is my shortlist of titles I thought worth a second look.

Most Intriguing First Book from a Cute & Cosmopolitan Baking Blogger
Baklava to Tarte Tatin, by Bernard Laurance

For Cooks Who Utterly Repudiate the ‘Quick & Easy’
Slow Fires, by Justin Smillie

This Year’s Most Authentic Book Written By a Supermodel
True Thai, by Hong Thaimee

For Cooks Who Are Already Too Clever For Their Own Good
Cook’s Illustrated Kitchen Hacks

For Those Still Sitting Shiva for Gourmet Magazine
My Kitchen Year, by Ruth Reichl

For Those Who Love to Eat Vegetables, and Those Who Only Love to Look at Them
V is for Vegetables, by Michael Anthony

Most Intriguing Small-Bites Book for When You’re Not Cooking for 12
Mezze, by Ghillie Basan

For Pizza Lovers Who Have Considered a Side Salad When the $2.50 Slice Is Not Enuf
United States of Pizza, by Craig Priebe

Effective At-Home Remedy for Culinary Wanderlust
Eat Istanbul, by Andy Harris

Several Dozen Vegetarian Ways to Use Up Those Spices That Have Just Been Sitting There for Years
Indian Harvest, by Vikas Khanna

For Palates Too Jaded for Hershey’s
Theo Chocolate, by Debra Music

Because, Don’t Deny It, You Know You Love Those Meatballs at Ikea
The Scandi Kitchen, by Bronte Aurell

Wings So Interesting You’d Enjoy Them Even Without the Game On
Chicken Wings, by Carol Hilker

For Church-of-Kenji Initiates, and Wannabes
The Food Lab, by Kenji López-Alt

For Those Who Feel Recipes Work Better In a Chart Format
Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Matrix, by Mark Bittman

The book:  At Home with Umami, by Laura Santtini (Ryland Peters & Small, $24.95)

The recipe:  Sunshine laksa with crab & snow peas

Why I tried itLaksa is not something one finds in New England.  It’s a Southeast Asian dish that’s about as easy to pin down as a curry, which is to say not at all.  There are probably as many laksas as there are cooks.  It could be a coconut-based curry soup, or a sour one, and it could have nearly any kind of protein imaginable; it probably has noodles.  There isn’t a whole lot of orthodoxy.  And yet for much of this year I, stranded in the laksa-less Northeast, endured mouthwatering laksa narratives from a friend in Australia without ever considering I might just make it myself.  At Home with Umami (rather brilliant concept for a book) put an end to this extended phase of laksa-related self-pity.

Why I loved it: I’m really not sure millet in place of noodles would be sanctioned in the Holy Book of Laksa, but no matter.  You’ve only to look at the list of ingredients for the laksa paste to know that a bowl of highly concentrated delicious lies ahead – shallots, lemongrass, shrimp paste, ginger, curry…need I go on?  I challenge anyone to maintain their reserve as the aromatics hit the pan.  The only real difficulty here is what to do when it’s all over and, in your foolishness, you didn’t think to make twice the amount of laksa paste with an eye to tomorrow.

(And if you want noodles, by all means use noodles.  I applied the laksa paste to some fresh thick udon one night and I honestly thought I’d died and gone to Elysium, my sins improbably forgiven.)

Estimated preparation time:  45 minutes, if you can find the shrimp paste.
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38_Laksa_019

Photo credit: Photography by Con Poulos

SUNSHINE LAKSA WITH CRAB & SNOW PEAS

200 g/1 cup millet
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 x 400-ml/14-oz. cans coconut milk
500 ml/2 cups chicken stock
500 ml/2 cups water
2 tablespoons fish sauce
5 kaffir lime leaves
1 lemongrass stalk, crushed
freshly squeezed juice of 3 limes
250 g/9 oz. white crab meat
200 g/3 small handfuls mangetout/snow peas, cut on the diagonal into 1-cm/1⁄2-in pieces
4 spring onions/scallions, finely chopped

TO SERVE
2 red chillies/chiles, deseeded and finely chopped
1 handful of coriander/ cilantro, chopped
lime wedges

LAKSA PASTE
3 shallots, cut in half 3 garlic cloves
3 red chillies/chiles, (1 with the seeds left in and 2 deseeded; or leave more with seeds in if you want it hotter)
2 lemongrass stalks, chopped
2.5-cm/1-in. square piece of ginger, roughly chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons any nut or seed butter
2 teaspoons shrimp paste
2 teaspoons curry powder
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

SERVES 4

Place all the laksa paste ingredients in a small food processor and blitz to a paste.

Place the millet in 2 cups of water, bring to a boil and cook till most of the liquid’s been absorbed and the millet is tender, about 10-15 minutes. Set aside and leave covered to stay warm.

Heat the oil in a large heavy-based saucepan over a high heat. Add the laksa paste and cook for 1 minute to release all the aromatics.

Add the coconut milk, chicken stock, water, fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass to the pot and bring to the boil for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the lime juice.

Take some warm serving bowls and in the base put 1 1⁄2 tablespoons of millet, 1 1⁄2 tablespoons crab meat, one-quarter of the snow peas and some scallions and ladle over the piping hot broth. Serve with the red chiles, cilantro and lime wedges.

From At Home with Umami by Laura Santtini
Ryland Peters & Small, $24.95; http://www.rylandpeters.com

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